The Buju Banton phenomenon

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By Donna Hope, PhD, Professor of culture, gender and society at The UWI

December 7th, 2019 will mark the first anniversary of the return of Buju Banton to his home, Jamaica, and to the welcoming arms of his overjoyed fans globally. Buju’s return to “yaad” from that crucial period of exile stands as an important moment in Jamaica’s musical and cultural history, and underscores a critical component of his ascendance to the true halls of legendary status within Jamaica’s musical landscape.

Riding on his decades of popularity and iconic status as a dancehall superstar with Mr Mention, and cresting his transformation to the Rastafari-influenced Til Shiloh, Buju returned as reborn and risen — a mature and powerful musical icon who has paid all his dues, and then some. His journey through music, culture, and exile in incarceration has cemented him as legend. For me, he stands as Jamaica’s first true dancehall/reggae legend, continuing to successfully traverse both forms and to reinvent himself in this brave new world filled with new platforms and opportunities that greeted him on his return. This Steppa does not Trust phones, but must still walk these new pathways that are intertwined with today’s musical and cultural landscapes.

That truly seminal Buju Banton ‘Long Walk To Freedom’ concert, hosted on Saturday, March 16th, 2019 at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, earned its place in the annals of musical and cultural history. It marked a high point in Kingston’s and Jamaica’s dancehall/reggae stage shows in the 21st century. Buju’s second appearance on a stage in Jamaica at Reggae Sumfest 2019 also pulled a massive crowd. But, that Buju Concert in March 2019 has become a 21st century lodestone for Jamaican/Kingston music events.

Many who were not intimately connected to the music and culture were seemingly struck by lightning, expressing amazement at the pull of a Jamaican dancehall/reggae act. And, since then, many refer to this event to underscore the importance of their event, or when seeking endorsements and/or funding. After all, that Buju concert showed the world that a single dancehall/reggae act could fill Kingston’s hotels and Airbnbs, as well as provide significant economic momentum for this city. Yes, one single dancehall/reggae act can and did draw thousands of Jamaicans from all over the country, and thousands of others from all over the diaspora, along with a range of visitors from different parts of the world, into the city of Kingston.

Even more importantly, the diverse demographics of age, gender, and social backgrounds present at that Buju Banton concert suggested that the right mix of factors could bring a cross section of people together in the same location. And so, each time I hear someone talk about the pulling power of Jamaican music, and state that they want to put on a concert like that Buju concert in March 2019, I lodge a few caveats.

That Buju concert in March 2019 pulled together a range of acts, including Beres Hammond, Wayne Wonder, Delly Ranks, Ghost, Steff London, among others. The star-studded line-up was guaranteed to pull a crowd. But, aside from the line-up, there was a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of factors that ensured the mega-success of the very, very astute promoters of that event. Buju’s dancehall and reggae fans, all those loyal men and women, wooed and wowed by his consummate genius in weaving his potent lyrical rhymes and inspirational poetic pieces, backed by his gruff and guttural tones, and his signal performance style over several decades, came out in tens of thousands from all across the globe to witness Buju’s return to their embrace. That was the essence of that Buju concert.

The only person that the crowd came to see in March 2019 was Buju Banton. No other performer really mattered. I had stood on that same grass field at the National Stadium at Sting 1991 and watched Wayne Wonder bring Buju on stage to perform Browning. Reports indicate that Sting 1991 had just under 43,000 tickets sold, and approximately 8,000 comps. That was the same night of the historic Ninja Man and Super Cat clash with its huge crowd following and that was the first time most people saw Buju on a big stage. The rest is history. I was privileged to stand on that same grass field on March 16th, 2019 and watch Buju return to his people — many, many of them, like me, original hard core dancehall fans. That was also a moment in history.

Buju’s voice had been stilled for almost a decade and no images of him made their way out to his fans after his sentencing created a vacuum. They needed to see him, hear him, and, if possible, touch him. The essence of that Buju concert was a montage of Buju, the artiste, the adulation of his fans, and the yawning hunger that had been created by his incarceration.

That Buju concert also represented his personal triumph over adversity and his own struggle with the forces within himself and the system and his quest for redemption and forgiveness. Many, many of those standing in the National Stadium understood this very clearly. And they were there to witness the initiation of this quest. People wanted to be present at the making of history. And so I lodge these caveats to those who seek opportunities within these fields of culture. You must mind the underserved masses, those at home and in the diaspora, carefully teasing out the desires that are still unfulfilled and match those with the right mix of products. But that Buju concert will not be easily replicated.

The emotional high and thought-provoking moments that Buju Banton’s return home created in that historical moment have crested and calmed. The momentum has waned. Today, he stands as both a man and a musical great, forged in the crucibles of Jamaican dancehall, seasoned in the halls of reggae, and matured in the harsh fields of life’s multiple realities. Today, Buju stands as a true leader in the dancehall/reggae fraternity, and more so as a living dancehall/reggae legend and a global symbol of the ongoing struggles of black, working class men and women who continue to battle for freedoms.

The intensity of emotion around his return home on December 7th, 2018 when many fans and media practitioners converged on the Norman Manley International Airport, and also for that Buju concert in March 2019 has been sated. But, I really believe that Jamaica and Kingston will not see that massive flood of thousands of family, friends, and fans at any concert or stage show for a single Jamaican artiste in this era — until perhaps Vybz Kartel returns from his sojourn behind bars. The vacuum created by incarceration and the emotional high upon release of an artiste who has, over time, garnered significant numbers of loyal fans locally and internationally is not easily replicated. Until then, Kartel’s loyal supporters wait in hope. (Jamaica Observer)

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